Diversity & Inclusion

The Future of Work Leadership: Building Trust, Equity, and Engagement in the Hybrid Era

The modern workplace has experienced a radical transformation in recent years. Remote and hybrid models aren’t just trends, they’re the future of work. With the hybrid work environment in full swing, a new normal necessitates new leadership strategies to foster a people-first, distributed workforce. Organizations must implement technology, policies, and processes in thoughtful, innovative, and intentional ways to foster collegiality and find deeper points of connectivity across work styles.

The leaders who successfully build trust, fight bias, and create vibrant hybrid cultures position their organizations for increased innovation, stronger retention, and greater competitive advantage in a tight labor market. It is more important than ever to meet employees where they’re at — geographically, virtually, mentally, and socially.

Establishing Trust as the Bedrock of the Hybrid Workplace

Trust is paramount to the success of any team, even more so when employees aren’t physically together. Leaders in hybrid and remote environments must be proactive in cultivating trust and giving employees greater autonomy. Here are key strategies HR professionals should be aware of and work to implement within their organizations:

  • Set Clear Expectations and Prioritize Transparency: Define roles, responsibilities, and performance metrics with clarity upfront. Be transparent about company goals, decisions, and potential challenges. This transparency reduces ambiguity and fosters an environment where employees feel informed and empowered.
  • Encourage Open Communication: Establish regular check-ins between managers and employees, both formal and informal. Create dedicated channels for team communication and encourage the use of video calls where possible to build rapport and connection. Leaders should be responsive and proactively address potential issues.
  • Empower Employees: Avoid micromanagement while establishing clear expectations. Trust employees to manage their time and deliver results in a style that best suits them, provided they meet deadlines and expectations. Regular touchpoints guide progress without being intrusive.
  • Recognize and Reward Contributions: Acknowledge and celebrate individual and team achievements, regardless of whether the work was done in-office or remotely. This signals everyone’s contributions are valued no matter their work style and builds morale and motivation.
  • Provide Opportunities for Connection: Beyond work-focused meetings, encourage informal virtual gatherings — coffee chats, team quizzes, or company-wide virtual events. These provide space for people to forge the connections virtually or in person that happen organically in traditional workplaces.

Building trust takes time and consistent effort. Leaders should be patient and persistent. While face-to-face interactions have benefits, the advantages of a hybrid and remote-enabled workplace often outweigh the challenges. By focusing on communication, transparency, and celebrating the unique strengths of a geographically dispersed workforce, HR leaders can pave the way for organizations where trust and flexibility form the foundation of future success.

Fighting Proximity Bias for an Equitable Hybrid Model

One insidious challenge facing hybrid teams is proximity bias, the unconscious tendency to favor those physically present in the workplace. This can have significant negative consequences on the morale, productivity, and opportunities of remote employees. To create a truly equitable — and connected — hybrid environment, leaders must take proactive steps to address this bias:

  • Acknowledge and Address: The first step is for leaders to acknowledge that proximity bias exists. Self-awareness is essential to avoid making decisions based on visibility rather than merit.
  • Establish Objective Metrics: Evaluate employee performance based on clear metrics and outcomes, not face time. Set transparent expectations that apply equally to remote and in-person workers.
  • Prioritize Proactive Communication: Schedule regular check-ins with remote employees to promote open communication, address challenges proactively, and ensure they feel supported and connected to the broader team.
  • Champion Inclusivity in Meetings: Consider adopting a “remote-first” meeting policy where everyone joins individually, even if some are physically present. This ensures everyone has equal participation opportunities and helps to manage the side conversations that happen in person, potentially excluding virtual participants.
  • Foster Inclusive Career Development: Ensure both remote and in-office employees have access to mentorship programs, sponsorship opportunities, and professional development. Leaders should be diligent about considering all team members when deciding who they offer project opportunities to – ensuring that they don’t default to those they are physically closest to and that they are delegating equitably.
  • Embrace Personality Diversity: Beyond the remote/in-office dynamic, a hybrid model can allow different personality types to shine. Leaders can shape a culture where introverts feel comfortable contributing in virtual settings, while extroverts benefit from the in-person energy of the office. Strike a balance that allows everyone’s strengths to be leveraged.

Overcoming proximity bias requires conscious effort and a shift in mindset. By focusing on outcomes, transparency, and inclusive practices and recognizing the value of diverse personalities and skill sets, leaders create a more equitable hybrid workplace where everyone can thrive and feel connected in a dispersed environment.

Leading by Example and Creating a Vibrant Hybrid Culture

While HR professionals play a vital role in designing policies and resources for hybrid teams, it’s ultimately leaders who set the tone and drive true inclusive cultural change. For a hybrid workforce to thrive, leaders must:

  • Embrace and Model Flexibility: If leaders themselves rigidly adhere to traditional office-based schedules, it is important they are visible champions of flexible work options, demonstrating that productivity isn’t tied to a specific location.
  • Focus on Outcomes Over Presence: Shift the emphasis from tracking hours worked to measuring the results achieved. Embrace flexibility by setting clear performance metrics and letting employees manage their time and location accordingly. Ensure remote and in-person employees have equal opportunities to contribute, collaborate, and grow.
  • Invest in the Right Technology: Provide reliable collaboration tools, video conferencing platforms, and project management software. Ensure everyone has the resources to work effectively, regardless of location.
  • Celebrate the Culture Consistently: Find ways to acknowledge milestones, birthdays, and wins in a way that includes both remote and in-office employees. Send small gifts and cards, or create a virtual recognition space.
  • Champion Continuous Learning: Encourage upskilling and provide resources for employees to grow professionally. Support employees who want to explore new roles or responsibilities, whether in-office or in a remote capacity.

Leaders who actively create a culture of flexibility, trust, connection, and inclusion set the stage for a hybrid workforce that isn’t just functional, but truly excels. HR professionals can work in tandem with leaders to ensure the policies, tools, and touchpoints are in place to make a hybrid workplace flourish.

Tangible Results: Engagement, Retention, and Success

The impact of thoughtful, intentional hybrid leadership isn’t just theoretical. Focusing on overcoming bias, building trust, and cultivating a connected culture leads directly to measurable outcomes. The cross-functional interactions fostered in successful hybrid models break down silos and boost innovation. Employees who feel valued, heard, and connected to the culture are more likely to be engaged and less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. Ultimately, a happy, engaged, and well-functioning hybrid workforce is an organization’s greatest asset, directly impacting the bottom line.

Successfully navigating the hybrid work era requires leadership that evolves alongside the changing landscape. The key takeaways for HR professionals and leaders are clear: recognize the impact of proximity bias and combat it relentlessly, foster trust through clear expectations and communication, embody and reinforce the company culture through action, and invest in technology and creative programs to connect all employees.

The workplace is unlikely to revert to fully on-site models. By embracing flexibility, prioritizing trust, and actively shaping a vibrant hybrid culture, leaders not only adapt — they equip their businesses to thrive in the new normal.

Mandi Spindler serves as the Talent Director for Ulteig in St. Paul, Minnesota. In her role, she leads the talent acquisition, talent management, DE&I, and Culture functions (mandi.spindler@ulteig.com).

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